Gene Levy Staff writer
Section: SPORTS,  Page: D1

Date: Wednesday, December 14, 1988

John Trembley, who once was nearly thrown off the University of Tennessee swimming team for having too much of a "me-first" attitude, is now its coach.

How times have changed! "When John first came in in 1970, he was a very high-strung individual," recalled newly retired Ray Bussard, Tennessee's coach the past 21 years. "John was not a team man. After the (Southeast) Conference meet at Alabama, we had a meeting. I told John, 'If you can't be a member of a team and support a team thrust, I want you to leave right away.'"

Trembley, a Loudonville native and graduate of Shaker High, stayed four years at Tennessee. During that time, he was three-for-three against Indiana's Mark Spitz in the 50-yard freestyle, set a national record for that event which Bussard recalls as "the fastest swim ever," and won a total of nine National Collegiate Athletic Association championships in an era considered the golden age of swimming in the U.S.

"The intensity was tremendous," Trembley recalled of his duels with Spitz, Spitz's Indiana teammate Gary Hall, and Trembley's own more heralded sprinting teammate, Dave Edgar. "That was true in training, competition and in total preparation."

Now, Trembley, 35, has been placed in charge of a Tennessee program that placed in the top five of the NCAA championships for eight consecutive years beginning in 1972, but which since 1980 has slipped out of the top 10.

He brings to the Tennessee job a team- first mentality and coaching credentials that match the swimming talents he once displayed in abundance. As head coach at Mercersburg (Pa.) Prep for nine years beginning in 1979, seven of his teams (six boys teams and one girls team) won national prep titles. He produced 123 All- Americans and his teams posted a 92-2 dual meet record.

"It was a given in some people's minds. People linked me to Tennessee," said Trembley, who conceded "it was the aspiration to return to one's alma mater."

Bussard, who had a .927 winning percentage (252-20), said there was never a doubt in his mind that Trembley would be his successor.

"Before John was hired, we started working very methodically to plan for him to take my place," said Bussard, whose 1978 Volunteers won the NCAA title. "He was head and shoulders above everyone else they interviewed."

Trembley has taken over a team ranked 11th in the preseason polls and has led it to a 7-1 dual meet record (the only loss was at No.5 Michigan). His stars are three freshmen he personally recruited: Melvin Stewart, who swam for Trembley at Mercersburg and is ranked second nationally in the 200 butterfly; Raymond Brown, a Canadian who has the fastest 200 backstroke time in the country, and Sal Vassallo, a Puerto Rican Olympian in the 400 free and 400 individual medley.

Trembley said he sees recruiting as at least 50 percent of his coaching job.

"Mercersburg (a traditional prep power) recruited for itself," Trembley said. "This university and the athletic department are the finest in the country, but few recognize what we have. I have to get the word out; it's a well-kept secret."

Trembley will have his work cut out to find a talent as great as he was. Even before he set a national prep record of 20.7 for the 50 freestyle in his senior year at Shaker, the word of his ability was out.

Bussard said, "When I went up to Michigan State for the 1967 NCAAs, John Buzzard, the coach at Syracuse, told me, 'Ray, you have to see this kid John Trembley. He's phenomenal.'"

At the time, Trembley was a sophomore at Williston (Mass.) Prep. He transferred to Shaker as a junior. By his senior year, he became involved in a recruiting war. Indiana, Southern Cal, Alabama and Yale all made strong pitches. It came down to Tennessee and Indiana, which was already on the way to six consecutive national championships.

Tennessee, which had won a similar recruiting war for the mercurial Edgar the year before, won out. Before Trembley graduated, the Vols took one sixth place, two thirds and one second in the NCAA championships. They were 49-0 in dual meets during his career.

How fast was Trembley? In 1971, Sports Illustrated did a story on Edgar, in which he was labeled "the fastest man afloat." Edgar, at the time, held the American record of 20.20 in the 50 free (because the 50 was only staged in NCAA competition it carried no world record designation, but the record- holder was generally considered to be the fastest swimmer in the world).

One year later, Trembley handed Edgar his only defeat ever in the 50. And as a senior, Trembley swam the distance in the remarkable record time of 20.06 that Bussard recalls would have been much faster but for incredibly poor conditions at Long Beach, Calif., the NCAA site.

"This, to me, was the fastest swim ever, before or since," Bussard said. "It was a preliminary race at 10 a.m. in shallow and turbulent water with a temporary bulkhead at the turn and conducted in poor lighting. If John Trembley had swam that race in the pools of today, you would have seen an 18.5."

Trembley whipped Spitz three successive years in the NCAA 50, including 1972 when the Indiana great set an Olympic record with seven gold medals. By contrast, Trembley never did beat Spitz in their other two common events, the 100 free and 100 butterfly.

"Mark set great standards to aspire against," Trembley said. "He helped many people, including myself."

Bussard said that although Spitz and Edgar received more recognition than Trembley, they can thank him for helping them achieve all they did.

"John Trembley made Dave Edgar and Mark Spitz who they were," the former coach said. "Every horse has to have a stablemate. He kept them honest."

Trembley recalls a time when his coach wasn't honest. And although it led to an American record in the 400 freestyle relay at the NCAA championships at West Point in 1971, it was an experience that left a sour taste in his mouth.

Bussard told Trembley and Edgar, who were seeded second and third, respectively, behind Spitz in the 100 fly, to tank the final in order to save themselves for the 400 freestyle relay two events later. They dutifully dog- paddled home fifth and sixth, saving themselves for the relay which Tennessee won in world record time of 3:01.11, thanks to a 44.21 anchor by Trembley that was 3/10ths of a second under Edgar's accepted world mark.

As a direct result of Bussard's finagling, Southern Cal was outpointed by Indiana (390-371), depriving the Trojans of beating the Hoosiers for the title. Trembley and Edgar were booed loud and long for their dastardly deed. Trembley recalled that incident as one of the the low points of his career.

"That (butterfly) was my last shot at Spitz," Trembley said. "I remember not speaking to Ray for the next three months because I was so mad."

Even though Trembley won two 50 frees, two 100 flys and one 100 free in NCAA competition, he remembers most fondly a 400 medley relay triumph over Indiana at the 1973 NCAAs. Tennessee went with a crew of three freshmen and Trembley. Indiana's lineup of Mike Stamm (an Olympic and U.S. record holder) in the backstroke, Brock Ladewig in the breast, Gary Hall (a three-time Olympian and world record holder Trembley had never beaten) in the butterfly and Gary Connolly in the freestyle was, on paper, several seconds a man faster than the Vols.

Tenneesee pulled one of the biggest upsets in NCAA history with Trembley coming from behind to edge Hall on the fly leg.

"Coach told us back in October that we would win the medley relay and we thought he was crazy," Trembley recalled. "The whole concept of a coach taking that chance and telling four relay members they could beat a team they had no right to be on the line with gave us trust in him and in ourselves."

The one thing that eluded Trembley was a chance to swim in the Olympics. In 1972, he missed the third and final qualifying spot in the 100 butterfly, finishing 1/50th of a second behind Jerry Heidenreich of SMU (Spitz and Edgar won the other two spots).

"I was upset back then, but I realize now the three flyers who went were our three best flyers," Trembley said.

The next year, Bussard said, Trembley was the best amateur athlete in the country. He won five NCAA golds, the first time that feat had been accomplished, and starred in international meets in Russia and West Germany.

"John was at the height of his career," Bussard said, "but the AAU did not put him up for the Sullivan Award (which went to UCLA basketball star Bill Walton). It should have been John Trembley's, but he was denied the opportunity. It was a great injustice."

Trembley, who is married to the former Joann Madge Hogan of Kingsport, Tenn., has three sons - John Michael, Jeffery and Lee. It doesn't look like the younger Trembleys are chips off the old block.

"I took John Michael to his first Tennessee basketball game and he said, 'Dad, I'm going to play for that team one day.'"

He'll have a long way to go to match the athletic feats of his father.